A chance meeting with the director Roland Emmerich and his cinematographer, Ueli Steiger, in a Cape Town restaurant led to a friendship that changed everything. “One day Roland said to me, if you can get in to film school, I’ll give you a scholarship,” Hermanus recounted. “Somehow they saw something in me; it’s a perfect example of what it means to invest in people.”
Hermanus went to the London Film School for three years, and made the full-length “Shirley Adams” as his graduation movie. “You are supposed to make a short film, but I wore them out,” Hermanus said. The film’s critical success in South Africa and abroad led to the invitation of a residency in Cannes, where he began to work on “Beauty,” a study of a gay obsession in a tight Afrikaans community.
Like Hermanus’s other films, “Moffie” is the product of what he describes as “forensic” preparation. He researched the era, helped by Ramsay, who had collected images of the South African border war in the ’70s and ’80s before he was involved with the movie. And the director met regularly with the actors for months, working out their back stories, then sent them to a boot camp for a week.
“Oliver created an environment in which anything was possible because we understood our characters and that world,” Hilton Pelser, who plays the terrifying Sergeant Brand, said in a video interview. “I came to understand what Brand is trying to do; in a very dark, very violent way, he is trying to save their lives.”
The movie, Hermanus said, is a reflection of the crumbling of apartheid, the moment when the minority government cranked up fear and distrust because it was losing its grip. There are very few Black figures in the movie, and all are the brief subject of violence or contempt. “I wanted the film to be from the perspective of white South Africa,” Hermanus said, “and that was its reality.”